A few weeks back, District Attorney Seth Williams did something amazing: He said he was going to start looking for innocent people and free them from prison.
More precisely, he appointed homicide prosecutor Mark Gilson to lead a “conviction integrity unit” to comb through old cases, look for possible wrongful convictions, and get those convictions overturned. Overturning convictions, of course, is not something that prosecutors like to see happen.
But Williams made the move with the support of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a non-profit office staffed with interns from law schools around the city, which has a mission of undoing wrongful convictions. Marissa Boyers Bluestine is the project’s legal director. She spoke to Philly Mag recently about the new position, and why it’s worth it to Philly to try and help the wrongfully convicted.
“We’re not saying that we can tell you who’s innocent and who’s not, but we need the partnership to be able to make that determination,” she said, “and we’re very proud to be doing it with the district attorney.”
OK, take me through the process that ended up with the district attorney’s office naming an attorney to examine old cases for wrongful convictions. That seems pretty amazing that they would do that kind of thing.
Well, I think it’s extraordinary and it’s also well in keeping with the things that Mr. Williams has been implementing since he started office which is to improve the accuracy and reliability of convictions. It really fits in with all of that: meeting those goals, setting that standard very high.
I take it you’re not expecting that the new attorney is gonna come back and say, “Well, we were prosecuting everything perfectly.”
I don’t think so. I mean, I know Mr. Gilson. I think he’s a terrific prosecutor, very smart prosecutor. And, he’s had his share of cases where there have been some mistakes made. He, let’s not forget, is the one who wound up prosecuting the two perpetrators in the Lex Street murder case and the first arrests involved a demonstratively false confession. So, I really would be very surprised if Mr. Gilson would not have learned the lessons I’m sure that he did from that experience — as well as his 27 years as a prosecutor — that despite everybody’s best intentions, mistakes get made. And that’s what, I think, is the important lesson and message of this office. It’s not about blaming people. It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s just about finding the mistakes and correcting them and that’s what we share.
Let me play devil’s advocate for a second and ask why this is worthy of the resources? Because convicting bad guys can be a tough enough job in this town. Shouldn’t we be fighting harder to get convictions instead of undermining them?
While I think the lawyers we have are terrific and well-dedicated, I don’t think there’s a systemic way of looking at these cases unless the prosecutors get involved and unless they do that. Why is this a good use of resources? Two reasons: 1. No one wants an actually innocent person in prison. No prosecutor, no defense lawyer, no civilian. 2. When we get the wrong guy, the guy who did it is still out there. And if we haven’t identified that we got the wrong guy, how are we going to prevent the guy who did it from causing more harm and more damage.
Do you have any sense of how many wrongful convictions we might have seen turn up from the Philadelphia district? Is this going to be a flood or a trickle?
I don’t know what it’s going to be at this point. And there’s nothing magical about Philadelphia. There’s no pixie dust in the Schuylkill River or the Delaware River that protects Philadelphia from the very same factors that affect every other jurisdiction in the country and, indeed, around the world where we convict innocent people. In Philadelphia, eyewitnesses get it wrong. In Philadelphia, people confess to crimes they didn’t do. In Philadelphia, there are forensics errors. In Philadelphia, we have problems with the way these cases go to jury. So, it’s not so much a trickle issue. It’s a “Let’s find out what’s going on” issue. To me, if it’s one, it’s too many. But we have 10 to 13 cases that we’re litigating right now here in Philadelphia that we have reviewed, that we believe these are innocent individuals who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. Let’s start with those. Let’s see where they go and let’s see if we can come to some agreement on these cases.
For those who do maybe turn out to be wrongfully convicted and then they’re set free from whatever sentence they were serving, has much thought been given to helping them enter post-prison life? What resources would be needed for that?
Well, there are tremendous resources that are needed. The great irony with people who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit is that they do not get the resources that actual criminals get. So, an individual who gets out on parole or probation coming out of prison gets access to a probation officer, to literacy training, to job placement, to anything they would need, really. If they pursue it, they can get it. The innocent individual, however, gets absolutely nothing. It is usually the lawyer who has to go pick them up and bring them somewhere, the lawyer that has to find them housing and a job and help them with counseling. The PTSD rate among the wrongly convicted is head and shoulders above the general prison population, more akin to military who serve active service. So, all those needs have to be met because they’re not being met by the state. They’re being met by projects like us.
We work with social service agencies to try to make sure that these gentlemen get the resources they need, get access to the therapy they need, the counseling they need or what their family needs. We look at it from a very holistic viewpoint because it’s not as simple as opening up the gates and letting them walk back into society. There are all kinds of hurdles that still have to be overcome and that’s part of our job as well.
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